Migrations

It is impossible to know if the stories of Angie’s parents and their life in England, and her memories of growing up in London are unique or a yardstick. However, Angie’s memories clothe the official narratives about a now largely forgotten generation the Windrush children and their migrant parents in a familiar, but like the past, strange land.

Ruby grew up in ‘the slums of Empire,’ as David Lloyd George is reported to have called the British West Indies in 1947. In 1938, when Ruby is 10 years old a Royal Commission is sent to the Islands to investigate a series of riots that have taken place in the years 1934-1938 when the world-wide depression has hit the territories badly. The Moyne commission’s damming report reveals the extent of widespread poverty and the general neglect of the mother country as one of the main causes for the unrest.

The British government in the middle of a World War stifle the findings in case the Nazi’s get hold of them and use it as propaganda. In her West Indian island school Ruby is taught Britain is the mother country and people even whisper it is a country where the streets are paved with gold. Mr. Frazier her teacher fills her mind with 19th century values about religion, social snobbery, moral education, and the formality and stiffness of the British Middle Class. The colonial history Ruby learns erases any heritage that is not British.

At school, Ruby learns the names of all the Kings and Queens of England and idiosyncrasies, such as ‘Jack Frost.’ She has to memorize classical poems about ‘stupid children’ (to quote Ruby) ‘standing on burning decks’ and the ‘quality of mercy’ not being strained in the Merchant of Venice. She uses English textbooks and takes English examinations.  

            There is a color caste system, on her Island a relic of slavery, ‘white, fusty, musty, dusty, light black, black and dark black’.[1] As Ruby walks home from school with her older sisters an Indian lady dressed in a green and orange kurta shalwar, says ‘Alaikum Salaam’ which to Ruby sounds like ‘I sam ki sam’ and she answers ‘salam babu’. The woman reaches out to her and tucks a penny into the middle plait of her three braids. ‘Why are they always putting money in your hair?’ Birdie her older sister scoffs, her voice betraying a twinge of jealousy. I don’t know’ says Ruby absent mindedly skipping on ahead, book-bag in hand and dragging a thin stick along the ground which she poked every now and again into hole in the road.

As they approached home up a steep hill their breath deserted them.  Once at the top they could make out the only shop in the neighborhood and attached to it a bakery where their father made bread, buns and cakes and behind that lay their sprawling home and garden. Walking into the shop which consisted of a room with a large counter and behind it shelves of everything from flour to soap they saw Violet their mother, her pink and white floral dress covered with an apron was busy wiping down the glass counter. ‘Go put your yard clothes on and do your homework and then come and help me here.’ Violet orders. She is tall and straight, the mother of twelve children, six boys and six girls.

A high yellow color she boasts of her family owning slaves and her mother, Ruby’s grandmother of German descent called ‘Gertrude’ or ‘Mama Gertie’ hates anything black, even black cats have to beat a wide path away from her. When Gertrude gets old and blind if strangers come to visit she will insist on feeling their faces to see if their noses and hair are straight enough which means they are probably pale enough. Their grandfather is black, and people call him ‘Bunny’ because he bakes the best buns. He also ‘breaks in’ horses. His mother had been the child of a Jewish slave owner and his father an indentured Indian worker so it is whispered.

Ruby wonders how her mother married such a dark man. Rumor has it that Bunny had a few shillings in his pocket and a sweet tongue. On her island of Jamaica, the shade caste system, is endemic it leaches into the employment open to blacks and lighter skinned people. The former tend to be peasant farmers, small traders, or landless laborers. Some lighter skinned men and women move up in society through education and become ministers and teachers. On the whole though in the West Indies Education acts as a gate keeper separating them and rarely admitting them to a group with more social standing.

Ruby finishes her secondary education and eventual spends a year training to be a teacher at college in Mandeville Jamaica. But before she can finish a young man from the village sweeps her off her feet. His name is Alexander McDonald. Tall and very light skinned in his words he is ‘a diamechi boy’. He has broken the hearts of several girls and gained the fury of a number of fathers, but he sets his sights on the slim petite ‘coolie’ looking Ruby.

They marry and have five children in quick succession. In between children Alexander finds work in Panama on the Canal and gets a job on a farm in Georgia through cousins who had traveled on a workers program and so are able to put him in touch with their employers. He even manages to make it to Harlem and spends several months working as a porter.

Jamaica like the other West Indian islands has been dealt severe blows by the Great Depression in the 1930s and then the Second World War devastates the economies of the Caribbean islands badly; the cost of living doubles and unemployment is high with no government assistance of any kind. The weather adds to the misery with a devastating hurricane in 1951. In these circumstances, Britain for families like Ruby and Alexander is an attractive option, as the United States where many family members have previously been migrating has passed the McCarran-Walter Act restricting immigration from a number of places including the West Indies.

In the early 1950s advertisements in the Jamaican Gleaner newspaper show recruiters coming to Jamaica looking for people to work on London Transport,  and the hotel and restaurant industry. ‘Why don’t you go and try your luck there? Things are hard here,’ Ruby reasons to her husband. ‘The papers even say the British Minster of Health Enoch Powell wants West Indian nurses to come and work in the National Health Service. You know Gwen is going don’t you.’ Ruby’s sister Gwen a nurse has already applied and been accepted to work in a hospital in a place called Forest Gate where she will eventually become a ward sister.

Ruby can’t just pick up sticks and leave like her younger unmarried sister. She is a young mother with five children under the age of five.  Finding work is difficult and he has a large family to support so the idea of travelling to England is enticing. The Alexander has two cousins who have traveled to Britain in the past and have stayed. Black people in Britain are not a new phenomenon in 1931; there are already 100,000 living in the United Kingdom.

From other parts of recent empire workers will travel for different reasons. The 1947 partition of India brings turmoil, and Britain encourages rural workers from India and the newly formed state of Pakistan to leave their homelands and look for work in the United Kingdom. Alexander travels by bus to Kingston the capital of Jamaica from their home in St Ann’s Bay with his friend Sylvester to see if they can find a way to get to England. They have some monies saved from their work in the United States and from the small farm holdings that they have. After meeting recruiters they decide not to go with them but to take the plunge and head for London and stay with friends who have already made the journey.

Returning to St Ann’s Bay it takes three months to make all the preparations. With an equal amount of excitement at going to the Motherland and apprehension at not knowing exactly what they are going to do, they bid farewell to their families. They travel back to Kingston and book their passage on a Standard Fruit Banana boat for the journey because at £70.00 it is a little cheaper than the £80.00 being asked for a regular fare and faster than passenger ships.

After an uneventful journey having stopped in Spain for a couple of days their ship sinks anchor in London’s Royal Docks. Alexander and Sylvester and other passengers go through the light formalities of immigration. They are British subjects and have a right of entry. It is late evening when they eventually find their way to West Kilburn in north London. Here they know a friend of a friend has found a room in Malvern Road in Maida Vale on the cusp of West Kilburn.

At London’s Waterloo Train stations, a conductor had pushed a leaflet into Sylvester’s hands about what West Indians would see and could expect in London. Sylvester scans the piece of paper reading in a mock British accent about the effects of German bombing on the capital as well as the railway system and, ‘the ceaseless rush of pale-faced people each with the inevitable case and umbrella in one hand and a newspaper in the other…it is small wonder that you feel completely lost and helpless.’ The leaflet continues to explain Identity Cards and Ration Books and ends with an explanation of ‘color prejudice’ within the country which Sylvester reads out loud to Alexander and anyone in a mile’s radius:

No Colour Bar

It is important to realize that while there is a certain amount of colour prejudice in England, there is no legal colour bar, and that what colour prejudice does exist is not as deep-rooted and specific as it is even in the North of America. A West Indian is entitled to demand that he be served in any public place of entertainment, just like anyone else, provided of course that he is suitably dressed and conducts himself properly.[2]

Sylvester and Alexander look at each other and large smiles engulf both of their faces. ‘Well boy’ says Alexander ‘we won’t have any problems’. I mean to say we are dressed to kill’. And they were, from the tips of their Panama hats, their tan coloured suits, dark navy blue ties  to their shiny brown shoes they were dressed immaculately.

What will become Alexander and Sylvester’s and later Ruby’s first home in England is on Malvern Road, in Maida Vale,  a terraced house standing three stories high and it also has a basement. Its cream colored bay windows and large black and white mosaic entrance hall hint of better days. In this house owned by an elderly white whiskered Irish man called Dermot Kavanagh, West Indians find they are welcome as long as they pay their excessively high rent on time each week. Months later Sylvester who finds a job working in a hotel as a porter, borrows a book from a Trinidadian fellow they call Ali. 

Ali is slim and short and a Muslim, he shares a room across the hallway with three other men, two from Barbados, Clement and Eustace Eric from British Guyana. The book is called ‘The Lonely Londoners’. Ali is proud that it is written by a Trinidadian Sam Selvon. Sylvester has read the book twice, he likes a passage where two of the protagonists talk about the differences between white Americans and English people in the 1950s and enjoys reading it repeatedly to Alexander and anyone else who will listen in the room.

‘Me know is the truth. Unno know plenty, plenty man go a Merica, fe wok on the Canal and me did my fare-share of field work ina dem deh farms down south, and dem let you know when dem don’t like you’, agrees Alexander exhaling deeply talking in  the Jamaican patois he uses when it suits him.

‘Yes, tings was a little better fe me, as me could pass fe wite, until me hopen me mout. But dem Jim-Crow sinting is bad’. ‘No official ‘Color Bar,’ he says scornfully. ‘But dem quick fe tells uuno fe shift, and that uuno is parasites taking up dem job and ’oman. Yes dem very quick fe talk ‘bout “fuck off back to your own country”. But see yah, me tell you someting, if de English was all to ‘go back to their own country’ England woulda sink’. He laughs and snorts into his miniature glass of whiskey.  Heads around nodding in agreement.

‘Look at how they are going round attacking people, those blasted Mosely’s British Union of Fascists  and  the Teddy boys[3]  who  think they are tough and feel it is their duty to beat up decent people . Clem the rich Brazil nut colored Bajan guy joins in.

‘I means to tell you, look how they murder he, that Antiguan fellow a couple months back. And you know they are never going to find who did it’. Clems singsong accent is musical.

“Yes’ ‘batty and chamber’ that’s the police and the crook dem, tick as tieves’, pipes up Sylvester. ‘That is why Jamaican start fe tan ass; every white man wha even look we way we lick him ass for him good and proper. Dem soon learn not to fass with Jamaican, so now look yah, every last man start fe say dem is Jamaican, cause it put the fear of God inna dem and dem sooooon piss off to bumbo rass clat’. 

‘The police is one thing, but those newspapers are all in it too. You read what dem say about the riots in Nottingham? Asks Ali.

‘Yes they call it a ‘Race Riot’, but they forget to mention the ‘race’ rioting is ‘white’. Alexander chimes in.

‘Ehheeeeh, me ear say so from Mr. Johnson, you member him? The one who settled in Nottnam from St Mary?

‘A oo yu  mean?’ Asks Sylvester, then answering his own question,

 ‘Awoah yu mean im who did marry Ellie’s fair-skin buck-teet sister with de tall hair?

‘Yes im same one Sill, we did used to call him ‘Matchiz’ cause im was tall and tin and had one lickle ead. Answers Alexander, and continuing, ‘Im say tousands of them white people was a marching shouting “let’s get the blacks”.  Alexander begins to mumble the whiskey getting the better of him.

‘And what the English government do? Alex? Sod all. That’s what.’ Sylvester vents bitterly. ‘I heard some people went fe see some government minsters just after the riots, and tell dem we no feel safe and we want dem to condemn the riots and give we some assurance, and you know dem hum and haw and do not one thing’.

Thirty years later a briefing of the meeting between the black community and the government in the wake of the Notting Hill riots is published:

Sir Austin Strutt

Notting Hill

….The most impressive point made by the deputation from Notting Hill that called on Mr. Guppy was, in my view, the need of the coloured people in Notting Hill to be reassured. They saw provocation by White Defenders and Moselyites carried out with apparent immunity, so the deputation said. This made them feel that neither the Government nor anyone else in the white world cared about their predicament. If a broadcast of the kind proposed had been made very soon after the murder of Kelso Cochrane it might have been very helpful and reassuring….

While I would strongly recommend against a broadcast now explicitly to condemn racial intolerance, I would not preclude the possibility of the Home Secretary dealing with the subject in the course of speeches or broadcasts on some other subjects.…

A.K.J.
Public Relations Officer
17th June, 1959

(Briefing for the Assistant Under-Secretary of State Sir Austin Strutt, from a Public Relations Officer, 17th June 1959 (HO 344/44 National Archives).


[1] [1] (Hiro 1973; Altbach & Kelly, 1978).

[2] (Extract from a booklet produced in July 1950 by the Central Office of Information called ‘A West Indian in England’ (CO 875/59/1 National Archives).

[3] Teddy boys are young working class men usually teenagers and in their early twenties, a rebellious subculture in Britain, they dress in Edwardian style clothing and beat up people of color on a regular basis (Gilroy, 1987).

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